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Higher education in London

  • 8 March 2023
  • By Nick Hillman

This is the text of a speech made this week by Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, to London Higher.

I jumped at the chance to speak to London Higher in part because I am an alumnus of our host institution, having studied here at the end of the last century when Queen Mary University of London / QMUL was known as QMWC or Queen Mary and Westfield College.

I left my job teaching History in schools because I was attracted by the taught Master’s course in Contemporary British History that was on offer here back then. It was led by Peter Hennessy, who is even more famous now – as Lord Hennessy – than he was in the past.

This institution’s position here in London was core to why my student experience was so good, as we got to benefit from studying amidst all the cultural, political and educational institutions situated in the capital. As part of the course, we visited the National Archives, the (then new) British Library at St Pancras, Number 10 and the Cabinet Office as well as the Houses of Parliament. As we were on their doorstep, we even got to enjoy seminars with the Queen’s Private Secretary, with the Cabinet Secretary and with experienced policymakers like Tony Benn.

I was first in this room 25 years ago to watch another one of my professors, John Ramsden, feature in a performance of the musical Cabaret performed by the Queen Mary Players, a staff / student troupe. John was a remarkable academic who worked for this institution for 37 years, from early 1972 until late 2008, a year before his untimely death. Some of you may know his books about the history of the Conservative Party and Churchill, or his books about films like the Dam Busters and Anglo-German relations.

As Peter Hennessy’s obituary of him said: ‘For “Rammers”, as he was known, history lived and breathed and talked and sang.’ Unusually, John Ramsden not only taught British political history but also practised politics, as the Conservative leader of the London Borough of Redbridge from the mid- to late-1980s.

So Professor Ramsden was the perfect mentor for me when I sought to make the move from education to a political / policy role – from student to wonk. And it is no exaggeration to say that I would not be the Director of HEPI today without the career support he offered me while I was studying in London.

I am also lucky to be an Honorary Fellow of this institution. The Award ceremony was in the middle of the last decade, during a regular graduation ceremony. I was given the Fellowship in honour of my work on higher education policy and the-then Chair of QM, Sir Nick Montagu, gave a very nice speech about my career to that date.

The only problem was he dwelt upon the small role I had played in tripling tuition fees during my time as a political adviser and the dozens of people in the room who were about to graduate were among the first students to be charged £9,000 fees. I could feel the temperature rising with every word Sir Nick spoke and, if the graduands had not all been sitting next to their parents, I am not sure I would have emerged unscathed.

After my stint as a political adviser, I moved into my current role leading HEPI. We have grown since I took over in 2014 and the first stage in our growth was to expand by taking on a new Director of Policy. Dr Diana Beech, your CEO at London Higher, was the first person to do that job and she did it brilliantly, quickly making her mark with various influential reports on topics like the:

Diana was extremely diligent, had no enemies and was a great advocate for the sector, but – sadly for us – she was soon snapped up by the first of a stream of University Ministers for whom she then worked.

As it is International Women’s Day this week, I feel duty bound to point out that HEPI’s Director of Policy role which Diana carved out so well, has only ever been filled by very successful women. Diana was succeeded by Rachel Hewitt, who is now the CEO of MillionPlus, and Rachel was succeeded by Alexis Brown, who recently became the Head of Global Education Insights at the British Council. Perhaps HEPI’s Director of Policy role will one day be done by a man but I hope that won’t be for many years to come because the vacant role has been filled this week by HEPI’s newest member of staff, Rose Stephenson, who comes to HEPI from the University of Bath.

The main focus of International Women’s Day should of course be the progress that we still need to make in higher education and beyond, especially when it comes to equal opportunities in the labour market, which is the theme of one of our most important HEPI papers Mind the (Graduate Gender Pay) Gap. In this week’s HEPI Annual Lecture, Andreas Schleicher of the OECD shows how women still make up materially less than half the higher education workforce in the UK and elsewhere. There are just 41 Black women professors out of 22,000.

But I nonetheless hope we can also take a moment to celebrate the progress that has been made in appointments to senior positions in our sector over the last few years. After all:

  • our new Secretary of State for Education and her shadow are both women (Gillian Keegan and Bridget Phillipson);
  • our new Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Shadow Minister for Science are both women (Michelle Donelan and Chi Onwurah);
  • four of the five top universities in the world – including Oxford and Cambridge – will soon be led by women;
  • UKRI and Research England are both led by women (Ottoline Leyser and Jessica Corner);
  • the Office for Students is led by a woman (Susan Lapworth);
  • UCAS is headed by a woman (Clare Marchant); and so are
  • the Quality Assurance Agency and Ofsted (Vicki Stott and Amanda Spielman); and also
  • the University Alliance (Vanessa Wilson).

I could go on but you get the point. Incidentally, at HEPI our Chair, 60% of our Trustees and 75% of our staff are women.

There is more progress to be made sector-wide but the pace of change has been fast both here and abroad. One of my favourite new higher education stats is that, just three years ago, every university president in Ireland was a man but, from May 2023, male presidents will be in a minority there.

I have watched with huge admiration the rejuvenation of London Higher under Diana’s leadership. Indeed, it is now hard to imagine the higher education landscape without London Higher. I keep reading about the organisation signing up new members, which is quite a feat in the fraught times we have been living in but it reflects the impact you are now having.

As an outsider, it seems to me that you play a valuable role not only because of the importance of London to the UK, Europe and the world but also because your members are so diverse. From research-intensive institutions through those with deep civic missions to small and specialist providers, you really do reflect the breadth of our sector.

That strength was seen last year in the Research Excellence Framework results, with 11 of the top 25 ‘units of assessment’ coming from this one city. The REF results sparked more talk of the Golden Triangle, but as I have pointed out before, we do not yet have a golden triangle, we have a golden V, with London at its base.

I live between Oxford and Cambridge and, while the Oxbridge-Cambridge Arc is a brilliant idea, there is a huge amount of work to be done to make it really meaningful. Sadly, after moving out of London to the Buckinghamshire countryside, I felt a little like I had moved from an area that was more YIMBY than NIMBY to one that was more NIMBY than YIMBY.

The newest HEPI report, produced in conjunction with the National Centre for Universities and Business, Universities UK and Midlands Innovation and with support from Henham Strategy, takes a deep dive into what more universities can do working with others to attract more foreign direct investment into UK R&D, in London, in that so-called Golden Triangle and far beyond.

Of all the things we do at HEPI, the one that we are perhaps most well known for is the annual HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey, which we developed in its current guise with Stephanie Marshall when she was at the Higher Education Academy and before she had moved into her current role as a PVC here at Queen Mary. The fieldwork for the 2023 wave is just winding up and the results will be published jointly by HEPI and Advance HE as usual in June.

It is a large annual survey of full-time undergraduates which has changed the policy agenda because it covers topics that others have tended to shy away from – including value for money, disclosure of mental health challenges to trusted loved ones and student workload.

However, the incredibly rich database we have built up has not to date been as widely used by third parties – that is, by those outside Advance HE and HEPI – as we have long hoped, and even though we make the data freely available to anyone that wants it. So I am absolutely delighted that London Higher and HEPI, with support from Advance HE, will jointly be publishing a report on Thursday of this week on what the survey reveals about the student experience here in London.

I had steeled myself for a fairly negative picture. Living in London is expensive and, as my mother who was a student here at Bedford College in the 1950s always tells me, it can sometimes feel as if students rarely come first in this huge city – for example, we see that in the latest London Plan when it comes to the provision of student accommodation. However as I do not wish to break our own embargo, I merely note now that we will be painting a much more nuanced, detailed and interesting picture than you might expect.

Nonetheless, the current cost of living crisis and the high inflationary environment means there are much greater costs in running an institution in London, and doubly so since the loss of the London weighting, as well as a bigger shortfall than there was in how much students receive and how much they need to live even a fairly basic life.

Unipol’s last Student Accommodation Costs Survey, conducted before the really sharp uptick in inflation, suggested a staggering 89 per cent of the maximum maintenance loan for London students is eaten up by rent. The next wave of this survey is due out later this year and the number is likely to have gone even higher.

Six years ago, I wrote an article for the Guardian headlined ‘It’s time to give London students more money’. My argument was that the top-up provided in the maintenance support package for students in London should be increased, given the extra hurdles faced by those studying in our capital city. The piece received around 200 overwhelmingly negative responses, generally along the lines of London already has everything it needs.

My favourite responses were:

  • Here’s an idea – why not move these institutions out of London? … The LSE could move to Southend, Hastings or Sheerness, for instance. They’re close enough to London that it wouldn’t even need to change its name.
  • People in the provinces don’t need money for craft beer or avocados.
  • It is time to close every single university based in London, and build new universities in the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country

Unless London institutions were to take such drastic – and impractical – actions, there is clearly a big and continuing public relations job to be done in explaining what needs to happen to ensure the continuing vitality and success of higher education in London.

After all, and this is my final point, the benefits of success in London’s higher education ecosystem reach beyond the M25. As London Higher’s CEO, Diana Beech, recently wrote in another HEPI paper (on the REF), successes in the ‘myriad institutions across the capital bring benefits not just to London but to other parts of the country and around the globe.’

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